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Rocket Propulsion

Let us consider the following situation.

There is cart of mass M and two boys are on the cart each having a stone of mass m.
Consider the scenario of both of them throwing the stone together in the horizontal direc-
tion with a velocity v0 . What is the velocity gained by the cart ? Assume the surface to be
smooth and frictionless.

Consider an observer in the ground frame (inertial frame). According to the observer, for
the entire system of the cart, stones and the 2 boys, there are no external forces. Thus linear
momentum is conserved along the horizontal direction.

Applying principle of conservation of linear momentum along the horizontal direction,

0 = (M − 2m)v + 2m(v + v0 )

0 = Mv +  + 2mv
  + 2mv

v= v0
The negative sign indicates that the cart is moving in the opposite direction.

Now, consider the case in which the 2 stones are not thrown together, whereas they are
thrown one after the other with the same velocity as in the previous case, i.e. v0 .
Let v be the velocity of the cart after the first stone is thrown.

Applying momentum conservation as in the previous case,

0 −m
v = v0
0 m
Thus the velocity of the first stone observed by the observer is v + v0 = v0 (1 − M
Let the velocity of the cart be v after the second stone is thrown.
Applying momentum conservation,
00 m 00
0 = (M − 2m)v + mv0 (1 − ) + m(v + v0 )
00 M −m
0 = (M − m)v + mv0 ( ) + mv0
00 m m
v = −[ v0 + v0 ]
M −m M
Clearly the magnitude of v obtained in this case is greater than the magnitude of v obtained
in the previous case.

Thus, throwing the 2 stones in 2 stages imparts more velocity to the cart than that of
throwing the 2 stones at a time.

In fact, this is the basis of the rocket propulsion principle, where some mass (analogous
to the stones in the above example) is being ejected at a constant rate to get to a higher

Rocket Equation

The derivation of the rocket equation is given overleaf.

The figure on the previous page illustrates the mass contents and velocities of the rocket at
two different time intervals, tand t + dt.

Let the velocity of efflux (jet velocity) of the mass ejected be vJ .

By conservation of linear momentum along the motion of rocket from the ground frame,

M v = (M − ∆m)(v + δv) + ∆m(v − vJ + δv)

 v M
= v + M δv −   − 
v∆m ∆mδv

  − vJ ∆m + 
+ ∆mδv

δv = vJ ∆m

Since the mass flow rate ṁ is assumed to be constant, ∆m = ṁ∆t and M = Mi − ṁt, where
M is the mass of the rocket at time t and Mi is the initial mass of the rocket before launch.

Plugging in all these values and integrating between t = 0 to t we get,

Z t

∆v = vJ dt
0 Mi − ṁt

1 0
∆v = vJ ṁ ln(Mi − ṁt)


∆v = vJ ln
Mi − ṁt
(Mi − ṁt) is the mass of the rocket after time t. Let it be denoted by Mf . Thus,

∆v = vJ ln

The above equation is famously known as the rocket equation. One important point to note
that while deriving this equation gravitational forces and air drag were neglected. But it can
be incorporated with slight changes in this equation.

Implications of the Rocket Equation

Consider the rocket equation ∆v = vJ ln
Mi = Useful mass or payload (mu ) + structural mass (ms ) + propellant mass (mp )

Mf is the mass of the rocket when all the propellant has been used up. Thus, Mf = mu + ms

Therefore, the rocket equation can be modified as,

mu + ms + mp
∆v = vJ ln
mu + ms

The following ratios have to be defined for the further analysis of the rocket equation.
mu mu
Payload mass fraction, α = =
Mi mu + ms + mp
ms ms
Structural mass fraction, β = =
Mi mu + ms + mp
mp mp
Propellant mass fraction, γ = =
Mi mu + ms + mp
Therefore the rocket equation can be written as,
α+β+γ 1
∆v = vJ ln = vJ ln
α+β α+β
1 ∆v ∆v ∆v
− −
= e vJ . =⇒ α + β = e vJ =⇒ α = e vJ − β

A number of conclusions can be drawn from the above plot.

• The payload mass fraction increases as the structural mass fraction decreases.
• The payload mass fraction increases as the jet velocity (vJ ) increases.
• The more the ideal velocity increment (∆v) required for the rocket, lesser is the amount
of payload that can be carried on it.
Such a kind of analysis is required for the design and the functioning of the rocket in a more
efficient manner to satisfy our requirements.